Interview: Barry B. Longyear

Barry B. Longyear will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He is the first writer to win the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in the same year (may still be the only one for all he knows).In addition to his acclaimed Enemy Mine series, from which the motion picture of the same name was derived, his works include numerous short stories, the Circus World series, Infinity Hold series, a mainstream recovery novel Saint Mary Blue, Yesterday’s Tomorrow: Recovery Meditations For Hard Cases, and science fiction and fantasy novels ranging from Sea Of Glass to The God Box. His more recent works include The Write Stuff, his career how-to-write opus, and the omnibus editions: The Enemy Papers (Enemy Mine, The Tomorrow Testament, The Last Enemy, and The Talman), and Infinity Hold\3 (Infinity Hold, Kill All The Lawyers, and Keep The Law). He is in the process of converting his backlist into Kindle format, and has recently completed The Night, the first novel in his Confessions of a Confederate Vampire series.

You give a lot of credit to editor George H. Scithers at Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (later at Amazing Stories) for picking your stories out of the slush pile and giving you a chance. Do you think writers need a champion to help them get started? Any tips for breaking through and making that first professional sale?
There is nothing that helps sales quite as much as an editor falling in love with your writing. Personally, I know next to nothing about marketing. That’s why I have an agent. My sales to George Scithers happened because I wrote what I wanted to read and he liked the stories I wrote. If he hadn’t liked them, I still would have written the same stories—either that or quit.

Many people claim that novellas and short stories are becoming increasingly irrelevant these days, yet many of your most important works are novellas and short stories. What would you say to this claim, and how do you choose the lengths for your pieces? 

I neither know nor care what other persons consider relevant. I’m writing my stories, not attempting to meet consumer/critic/editorial demands. That’s not smart if one is trying to put pork chops on the table, but that’s the only way I can do it. About choosing the length of my stories: I don’t. I have no control over word length whatsoever. I get the story going then find out what I’ve written after I’ve finished. More than one editor has gone bald pulling his hair out over the length of my stories. When I find characters I like, however, I like to stick with them.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it? 

My object is to write the best stories of mine (my own) of which I am capable, rather than making sales. The biggest weakness in this endeavor is my health, which tends toward the iffy. Fatigue, illness, the clock running out all tempt me to cut corners. When I find myself so tempted, I put the writing aside and go do something else—or rest. When I read over my own stuff (which I do a lot) I want to see my brilliance rather than cringe in embarrassment. So, I always do my best to be true to my current story. If I can’t do that, it’s time to go paint the garage.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

It depends on the writer’s goals. For writers who want to get sales, become famous, and rich, my advice is to get into some other line of work. That is great advice, too. It will save them decades of frustration, heartbreak, and self-mutilation.

For those who want to write the best stories of which they are capable because loving writing is their affliction, my best advice is to get to know yourself—know yourself in such depth and detail that you can draw upon this knowledge for story goals and materials, and to enable you to get out of your own way.

This is the fourth time you have guest lectured at Odyssey. What do you get out of the experience? How have your lectures changed over the years and why? 

I love writing. I love doing it, talking about it, hearing about it, tinkering with it, learning new things, and polishing up the basics with those who want to learn. I help new writers a lot, and there is not an altruistic bone in my body. An old wheeze in the teaching business is that you always learn more than you teach, and every time I’ve done a gig at an Odyssey, I come back to my desk renewed, recharged, and bursting with new ideas. About how my lectures have changed over the years and why, I’ll be damned if I know. An old lecture is like an old story: swept out of my head to make room for the new. If I could retain all this detail I’d be a sports commentator.

In The Write Stuff you spend a lot of time counseling aspiring writers to assemble a list of the books (and movies and other art forms) that moved and inspired them and analyze what about those works appealed to them. You call this “collecting your vibes.” Can you talk about this a little bit? What is its importance?

This has to do with this belief of mine that the path to maximum writing excellence, enjoyment, and sanity can be found by an individual writing his or her own stories through the filter of that individual’s own unique sight and experience. The big challenges then are (1) finding out who you are, and (2) what your stories are. Insights to both can be found by systematically studying in detail the various kinds of creative works that you find important personally to you. By doing that myself I managed to learn the mix of characters, themes, conflicts, settings, plots, literary devices, and fields that would eventually combine to become my own.

How would you describe your most recent book, The Night, from the Confessions of a Confederate Vampire series?

In a friendly fire incident during the Battle of Chancellorsville, Pvt. Alan Castle (CSA) fires the shot that took down the South’s best general, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. Later, when captured by the enemy, Castle is forced to drink an unconscious soldier’s blood to abate a hellish thirst. Apparently the unwilling donor had something of a blood disorder. Having now acquired the power to grant not only life but immortality to the dying general, Castle now can either put Gen. Jackson back in command, thereby assuring the independence of the Confederate States, or be responsible for Jackson’s death, the South losing the war, and all that transpires should that come to pass.

That’s the description. It was, without a doubt, the hardest book I ever had to write, mainly because of the volume of research. It was also the most engrossing and rewarding literary challenge I’ve ever had. As of this writing, we are still awaiting a publisher.

They say that Orson Welles didn’t like it when people referred to his first feature film, Citizen Kane, as the best in his long career. Does it bother you to be known as the author of Enemy Mine (first published in Asimov’s in 1979)? 

I don’t object to being known as the author of Enemy Mine; that is, until I find the compliment coming from someone who has not read it but has, instead, only seen the motion picture. A lot of folks like that movie. I do not judge them. However, a special process was used in the making of that movie. It affects one’s vision. If, after viewing the film Enemy Mine, one does not read the original novella within a matter of only a few years, one’s eyes tend to shrivel up and fall out of one’s head. In some cases when they land they explode.

In your book Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop-I you give a wonderful description of “A Story.” One section that readers find particularly fascinating and mysterious is this: 

The being at last designed a plan that would make its weakness invulnerable to the obstacle and would, at the same time, achieve its goal. The plan failed; the being realized its weakness could not be made invulnerable.

Could you explain what you mean by “make its weakness invulnerable to the obstacle”?

No mystery. That is the “bright moment” device; the “I think we have all the exits adequately guarded” moment, followed by the dark moment, of course:  bloodthirsty aliens coming in through the false ceiling.

In the context of “A Story,” it is also the setup for the story’s character change. In other words, we can’t prevail by changing nothing. The character had to “put on one last, desperate effort to overcome its weakness” (change its character) to defeat the obstacle and prevail.

Another old literary wheeze: “A sympathetic character is one who struggles against overwhelming odds to achieve worthwhile goals.” And the biggest, meanest, badass overwhelming odds that exist are the ones inside of us:  internal conflict, sometimes called getting out of one’s own way.

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